Knowing one's self: Before we talk about practical solutions and life's experiences relative to "shaping one's self," we must know our Nafs (Nafs is an Arabic word meaning self) and find out in what way we can re-shape, train, nourish, and transform it from its lower position to a higher level of existence.
We are aware that there are various orders and systems in the world and each one has defined man and his Nafs in its own way. One of these systems in our age is the materialist order of Marxism which has engulfed half of our globe and ideologically it has seriously clashed with our Islamic ideology. Marxism has simply defined man as an animal.
Physiology and Biology: In Marxism man is like an animal who conducts his activities solely for the sake of his enjoyments; there is no spiritual beyond this existence. Even those Marxists who try to bestow a 'spirit' on man simply resort to a definition of him as a material phenomenon; a definition which is rejected by us. Stalin, one of the leaders and ideologues of the Marxists had a popular saying; "Man's perceptive activities revolve around his personal (material) gains." Thus with such a definition man's Insaniat (humanity) and his Nafs come to a halt.
We pass all other schools and come to the Divine school in which we come across two kinds of human beings; man made of mud and Insan made of the Divine essence. And man's goal in this life is to go through an evolutionary cycle in order to become transformed into a Divine like Insan; namely, to create a gigantic leap in man. In order to accomplish this task we run across the Divine school which extends from minus infinity to plus infinity.
In order to know man Islam takes three distinct levels into consideration;
Jism (body, physique),
Nafs (personality, character), and
Rooh (soul, spirit).
Namely, in one of the philosophical outlooks of Islam, man is composed of three parts; Jism, the physique which is of material substance and we deal with it in physiology and biology. Thus our bodies are known to various systems and as far as these scientific areas are concerned Islam has no disagreement with anyone.
Nafs: Nafs in man is the totality of sentiments, tendencies, desires, wishes, experiences, and our heredity characteristics; in short, it is man's personality.
What creates a difference between one man and another is Nafs rather than Rooh. It is man's Rooh which transform and evolves.
Rooh: Based upon the Qur'anic verse; "They ask thee concerning the spirit (of inspiration). Say The spirit cometh by command of my Lord: of Knowledge it is only a little that is communicated to you, (O men!)." (Holy Qur'an 17:85) This verse teaches us that the spirit is an 'Amr' i.e. the work of Allah. In other words, it is a created thing, not self-existent. The Holy Qur'an does not go beyond telling us that. It does not tell us the nature of the spirit. However, just like our ignorance of the nature of electricity or magnetism does not prevent us from taking full advantage of these wonders of creation, we can advance ourselves spiritually by taking full advantage of the functions of the spirit.
Rooh is something which descends to man from God and we interpret it as our 'inside Prophet' namely, it is a representative from the Lord inside Insan. And this what is interpreted as 'Gabriel' in the case of the Prophet as was the Holy Spirit in Jesus (pbuh). It is the relationship of God with man that appears under various names in different Prophets. This spirit is clean and innocent and it cannot err. Rooh never appears in plural form in the Holy Qur'an (although common men have pluralized it; 'Arwah') since it is a single reality. So there is no difference between your soul and my soul, the two of them 'is' a reality like the sun which radiates its, light upon all men. While the plural of Nafs is Anfos (or Nafus). And when and entire group of people get killed we say; "Their Nafus died rather than their Arwah," since the latter, being God's manifestation, cannot be killed. Where man develops the capability, aptitude, and the worth to discover Rooh, he will be aided by the latter. And when a disease attacks and the body and Nafs loose their natural balance Rooh falls into disuse and cannot establish relationship with man.
What distinguishes one man from another is Nafs which contains our personalities. And in our opinion the part of us which is responsible in front of the Lord in the final day is the Nafs of each of us. And it is Nafs which errs not the Rooh. The body is not that important since it is in constant process of change and transformation. However, what we believe to be the essence of man was placed in the Nafs, and it is Nafs which will be interrogated in the last day.
In order to talk about the shaping of one's self we must concentrate upon the analysis and examination of Nafs. Once we reach this stage we come right across the sacred Islamic school and we are proud that Islam has conducted in-depth and extensive analysis in this area unparalleled in any other school or system.
In the Holy Qur'an and in the vernacular of our theosophists seven stages have been predicted for Nafs. Namely, from the onset of its evolutionary journey to becoming God-like, Nafs must pass through seven different stages. The seven levels (Nafs) are as follows:
1) Ammara (Nafs-e-Ammara / Commanding Soul): There are various verses in the Holy Qur'an relative to the existence of this kind of Nafs. This Nafs commands us to commit sin. It is lower than animals because they behave according to the demands of nature. When a lion or tiger devours another animal it is because it needs food. And once an animal is full it does not pursue another animal, while a man is capable of swallowing the whole world and still be hungry. Man can kill thousands and still long for more blood. There are lots of factual accounts which are indicative of the existence of Ammara, one of whom was the late Shah of Iran; the more he killed the thirstier he became and the more he stole the greedier he got. Saadi, the famous Iranian man-of-letters recounts the story of Mahmoud Shah Ghanzanavi who was at the threshold of dying but he would not die. Eventually he commanded that his royal jewels be mounted on mule backs so the caravan could pass in front of his eyes. Once this was done, he died comfortably. These are a few samples of men who became so degraded that they sank lower than any animal. Man tramples upon his nature and behaves relative to the demands of his desires and whims for which there is no limit. In short, Ammara is lowest of all the Nafs and Dr. Shariati has compared it to mud.
"Nor do I absolve my own self (of blame): the (human) soul is certainly prone to evil, unless my Lord do bestow His Mercy: but surely my Lord is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful." (Holy Qur'an 12:53)
Imam Ali (as) has said that: "The Nafs is like a wild horse and you are riding upon him, if you move your attention for one second, he will throw you off." "The restraining the soul (or self) from its appetite is the greatest holy war." Here, Imam Ali (as) is referring to the Nafs-e-Ammara.
Bade Moozi Ku Mara, Nafs-e-Ammara Ku Gar Mara Nahang o Azdaha o Sher-e-Nar Mara To Kya Mara?
2) Lawwama (Nafs-e-Lawwama / self-accusing soul): This word is derived from 'Lom' which means to 'reproach.' At this stage Nafs reaches a point that if it commits a sin its conscience wakes up and criticizes the doer. This is the first indication that man's Nafs is wakening up and perhaps most men in the world are at this stage. When common men commit a sin they awaken and become sorry and sad. It is this self critics that forces some criminals to give themselves up (or it allows the psychologist to find them). Nay! I swear by the self-accusing soul. (Holy Qur'an 75:2)
3) Agheleh: At this stage Nafs posses the power of thinking and reflection and so, it bases its actions upon logic and thinking and does not fall prey to extremes of sentiments, rage, whims, and fleeting desires; it calculates. Not too many people reach a stage where they can ponder over the consequences of their own behavior before acting.
4) Malhama (Nafs-e-Malhama / Inspiring soul): Malhama is derived from Elham (inspiration). The person who reaches this stage receives inspiration from the Lord. Namely, he is so virtuous and devout that he has developed the aptitude to accept the Lord's inspiration. God's light shines upon all, but this particular Insan at this stage is capable of absorbing the Divine's light and comprehends it.
There are beautiful definitions for Elham and Wahy (inspiration) which must be clarified at this point. Elham is from low to high, while Wahy is from high to low. Specifically, in Wahy God establishes communication with man, while in Elham Insan establishes communication with God. Of course, Elham depends upon the extent to which a personality has evolved while Wahy is not subject to such rule; it is God's command that descends to man. And since Wahy is from the Lord, it is absolute and perfect and there is no doubt in it because He wants man to receive the message in it entirely. However, this is not true about Elham which is always incomplete since it depends each man's aptitude and personality. The stronger and more perfect man is, the more perfect will be his Elham. But since men are not perfect, often times Elham appears as lightning in the sky in a dark night, so quick that man gets a chance to perceive the truths very briefly.
5) Mutmainnah (Nafs-al-Mutmainnah / satisfied soul): At this stage Nafs reaches the stage of certainty; it will neither collapse nor will it retrogress. It is sure of its evolutionary cycle and its meeting with the Lord. It can commit a fault or sin but it is so ahead that it is certain it will never backslide.
"O you Tranquil Soul, return to Your Lord, well pleased, and well-pleasing unto Him! Enter you, then, among My devotees! Enter you My Heaven!" (Holy Qur'an 89:27-30)
This is the stage, which is the goal of this life. To reach the stage of total contentment with Allah (SWT). To commit no sin knowingly and to take pleasure in doing good acts. It is this soul, which was called on the day of Ashura, when Imam Hussain (as) put, down his sword and heard the voice saying "Oh soul that is content! Come back to your Lord, well pleased (yourself) and well pleasing to Him."
6) Raziyah: This is derived from satisfaction. In its evolutionary cycle Nafs reaches a degree that becomes satisfied with its own position.
7) Marziyah: At this stage not only Nafs is satisfied with itself but also the Lord almighty is satisfied with it too. Now Nafs is a lover of the Divine. This is the last stage in our Islamic theosophy in the Nafs cycles. There are many verses which contain various Nafs I discussed here.
What I want to mention here is that from the Qur'anic Point of View, Nafs (from Ammara to Marziyah) requires an evolutionary cycle and man must discipline himself for this evolution. We know when a Nafs has reached the Marziyah stage it will share some of the attributes of Rooh. However, I emphasize that Nafs is different from Rooh; the former has a corporeal condition while the latter is abstract. Thus, the two are not of the same essence. Further, Nafs is a kind of energy which is equivalent to matter subject to physical lava. Matter is the condensed form of energy, so the internal psychological stimulations such as actions reactions, sentiments and feelings are all forms of energies equivalent to matter. We can say that Nafs has a material tendency.
Rooh is God's behest; it is His knowledge and His power and it is conscious of the past and the future. Therefore, Nafs in its evolutionary journey becomes live Rooh and establishes communication with the Lord and becomes a part of His manifestation. At this stage we can say that Insan has become a God-like, By this I do not mean that Insan is God, rather he radiates God's manifestations. God has one thousand and one attributes such as Jamal, Kamal, Rahman, Rahim, Elm... When such attributes appear in man, he becomes God-like or His viceroy on earth. If God is wise man becomes wise and if He is powerful, his vicegerent becomes powerful also. At this stage there is constant communication between Insan's Nafs and his Rooh and anytime he wishes he can establish communication with the Lord through his Rooh, ask for advice and seek answer to his inquiries. At this level nothing will remain vague and insolvable to Insan.
Imam Ali (as) said: Surely God has characterized the angels by intellect without sexual desire and anger, and the animals with anger and desire without reason. He exalted man by bestowing upon him all of these qualities. Accordingly, if man's reason dominates his desire and ferocity, he rises to the station above that of the angels, because this station is attained by man in spite of the existence of hurdles which do not vex the angels.